It would have been a bummer if a woman with a large hat had been seated in front of me at the IFFBoston screening of Disorder. I regrettably do not speak French (working on it!) and so Disorder‘s English subtitles are pretty vital to the enjoyment of the film. If a lady with a large hat, perhaps inspired to wear such a thing by The Great Train Robbery or that episode of Sesame Street, were to get comfy in the seat in front of me, there’s a chance that those subtitles might have been obscured. I’ve yet to develop social courage or an extendable giraffelike neck (working on it!) and so, yeah, that would have been a bummer.
But, actually, no: Disorder would have been every bit as powerful without the words. Plot-wise there’s nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and in fact the synopsis runs the risk of sounding heavily clichéd when it’s written down on paper. Vincent, a French soldier fresh back from Afghanistan, has taken a job at a private security company and been tasked with protecting the beautiful wife of the shady rich magnate. His PTSD interferes with this, but when the beautiful wife becomes a target it’s up to Vincent to save her. This admittedly sounds uninspired, but thankfully Disorder is crafted with care and creativity such that synopsis takes a backseat to style.
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Night Manager, I thought I’d know more or less what to expect from High-Rise. This is due largely in part to the sexy sexualization of Tom “Sexy” Hiddleston, who stars in both and is also sexy. I assumed his character in High-Rise to be the sterling yuppie with the isn’t-it-perfect life structured in service of the concealment of darker, truer impulses. In Night Manager Hiddleston’s attractiveness is essentially made into a plot point; so too, probably, would High-Rise note the perfection of the specimen before delving into a personality far less desirable. A six-pack and a violent extreme, per American Psycho, per marketing stills like this:
But High-Rise isn’t sexy for very long. The prologue is a glimpse of the messy future, wherein Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing seemingly resorts to making food out of the dog, making paper airplanes out of the electricity bill, and making a ramshackle life in the husklike ruins of the tower block. It is suspiciously unsexy. Then again, though, resorts isn’t the right word: Laing has very definitely chosen this. He’s in a sort of hell and is more or less enjoying it.
There’s something about Eddie Redmayne that just crushes your soul. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing — he’s a beautiful soul-crusher — but man, I feel like every time I sit down to a Redmayne movie, I’m going to leave feeling any one of, or a combination of, three things: 1) uncomfortably mortal, 2) disastrously under-accomplished, or 3) questioning my sexual identity.
The Danish Girl is no exception to this inevitability, though in this case, it is perhaps a bit more of a forced conclusion than in some of Redmayne’s other roles. In fact, all three of these reactions are obviously sought by the end of the film, with the lead dying – “Shit, I’m so mortal!” – the two leads both being successful, talented artists – “Shit, I’m so bad at doing stuff good!” – and of course, the main character transitioning in order to become his true self – “Shit, what even is a ‘true self’?”
However, the real issue I take with this film, aside from the generally predictable feel of the method-acting made-for-Redmayne award-seeking plot, is that it isn’t actually accurate at all to the life of the person it is supposedly based off of, Lili Elbe (Elvenes), and her relationship with Gerda Wegener, played by the stunning and Oscar award-winning Alicia Vikander — but we’ll get to her later.
One appreciates how difficult it is to make a successful film like Spotlight. Yes, you have an A-list cast at your disposal, and yes, it’s Oscar season. They’re going for it. You have a true story that is quite literally already recorded for the public eye, plain as day, and besides the revelatory Spotlight newspaper clippings you have a vast backlog of coverage on the coverage, stories about the story. Yes, most of the real people who took part in that story are still alive and willing to participate in making a film about their achievements. And yes, the crucial win is already firmly in place: this is a highly relevant story, stranger than fiction but all the more urgent for being the truth.
Granted, there’s one massive pressure point in the expectations set by the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Director Tom McCarthy (“you” from the first paragraph) must have felt what Adam McKay felt in directing The Big Short, what David O. Russell felt in directing Joy, what Danny Boyle felt with Steve Jobs, what Don Cheadle felt with Miles Ahead. Any director dealing with the poster tagline Based On a True Story must ask “am I getting this right?”
Rather than going out and partying or hanging out with friends as most teenagers do on Friday nights, I instead chose to have an existential nightmare by watching the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman: Anomalisa.
You may recognize Kaufman as the writer of such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. Kaufman also wrote the much beloved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the incredibly complex and possibly genius film Synecdoche, New York. If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Kaufman’s works, there’s a wonderful writer series here on Motion State. To say the least, in this very impressive filmography Charlie Kaufman has built for himself, Anomalisa stands out as both incredibly unique and right at home.
Anomalisa is about a man named Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis. Michael is a corporate spokesperson known for writing books on customer service. Many people look up to Michael and the way he is able to look at the world, but beneath that exterior, he is actually struggling deeply with problems in his personal life and what he deems “psychological problems”. When people talk, Michael simply hears the same bland voice over and over. One evening in his hotel room, Michael is practicing delivering a speech he is scheduled to give the next day and attempting to infuse it with the sincerity that he obviously lacks. Just outside, he hears the voice of a beautiful young woman named Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly mesmerized by her and is determined to make Lisa a part of his life.
Hey — it’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies. Slug some hot chocolate, throw on your wool hat, follow the colored lights strung from tree to tree on the citywide commons to the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. I’ll get the tickets, you get the popcorn. What do you want to see? It’s Christmas, remember, so we need something that will encourage our merriment and warm up our capacity for joy. That disqualifies The Revenant. What about Star Wars for the fifth time? What do you mean you saw it again this morning? Why didn’t you invite me? Whatever, just go get the popcorn.
Here we go: a new Tarantino movie. One would think that a brand spankin’ new flick from Tarantino would, if nothing else, be entertaining. It’s Tarantino. This is the diabolical purveyor of histrionic, action-packed jaunts that bleed style and ooze cool, of movies that have banging soundtracks and automatically generate an Academy Award for Christoph Waltz. This is the director that champions violence in film as fun, responding to the masses that claim violence in film is a potentially toxic influence on viewers with a beautifully composed shot of red blood spewing out of a newly-severed neck. Take that! The violence-is-bad point always reminds me of part of the testimony of famed censorship bogeyman William Gaines during the 1954 hearings on the validity of the violent comic books he produced: “Do we think our children are so evil, so simpleminded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?” I picture Tarantino saying that, only with a lot more gesticulation and overeagerness and a lot of “alright, you know, okay?” and a lot of averted glances.
It’s fitting that The Revenant pushes the limits of film, ceasing mercifully only just before breaking, because that’s exactly what happens to Hugh Glass. If you’re one of the people behind the film, crafting it, then you have to push the limit: you’re Alejandro Iñárritu or Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off the exquisite Birdmanand arguably at the height of your career, seemingly happy to be shouldered with the weight of expectation or otherwise just left with no choice. If you’re one of the people in front of the film, watching it, you want it to push the limit: if you’re watching The Revenant in the first place, you’re likely quite certain that you’re in for a challenging watch and not a brain-switched-off actioner.
But if you’re one of the people inside the film, acting in it, living it, then being pushed to the limit means actually being pushed to the limit. Throughout 2015 stories of the extremely arduous on-location filming of Revenant trickled down from that remote region of Alberta, from the torrential rains of British Columbia, from the freezing southernmost tip of Argentina. Ten people quit or were fired during production. In July Hollywood Reporter ran an article about the brutal conditions on set, prompting more and more questions about the safety precautions and the direction of the film. Blurbs from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and the rest of the cast make The Revenant shoot sound more life-threatening than that of Apocalypse Nowor Fitzcarraldo; Iñárritu himself has since taken to referring to the cast and crew as “survivors”.
The good part about studying abroad in Palma de Mallorca, Spain is the warm weather, the beaches, the paella, and so on. The bad part is that pretty much all of the movies are dubbed in Spanish (tough trade off, huh?); as tempting as it has been to see, say, The Martian or Spectre in dubbed Spanish, I have decided to pass.
However, this past weekend, I had the unique opportunity of actually seeing a movie in English at the ever-prestigious Evolution International Film Festival in Mallorca (slowly becoming the new Cannes). With my busy schedule of doing Spanish things, I only could go to the final movie: Mistress America.
Beasts of No Nation lives in the space between realism and allegory. Uzodinma Iweala’s original novel approaches that space but seems far less concerned with it, narrated entirely by the young central character, Agu, in his simplistic present-tense dialect. A child soldier in West Africa, Agu’s journey in the novel is one of survival. His family is killed, and to avoid being killed himself he accepts an offer to join the army of the Commandant, a rebel warlord. At first he declares “I am not wanting to fight”; eventually, though, Agu is killing with knives and guns, willfully attacking “enemies”, tearing through his war-stricken country at the whim and call of the Commandant.
Everything about the novel is heartbreaking, but nothing more so than the sense that Agu is too young to realize that his journey across his country is also a descent into hell. The first-person narration is one that nonetheless conveys the bare minimum about Agu’s own thoughts and feelings about his actions, and yet at times it conveys more than enough. “I am liking it” — this is what Agu says about the sound of his knife hitting a woman’s head, about the splashing blood. It’s brutal in how direct it all is, in its impossibility and in its plausibility. Iweala never has to name the West African country or convince us that someone like Agu really exists; Agu very definitely does.
97% of Steve Jobs is nearly perfect. Much like the products borne of the man’s unparalleled creative vision, everything in his latest biographical film is optimized, streamlined, rounded when the edge should be rounded, sharp when the edge should be sharp, forward-thinking, life-changing, and pitched to be perfect. The performances are subtle and explosive, depending on which character you’re dealing with. The drama is heavy-duty; the comedy is excitingly witty. The pacing of the whole film is breathless. And the writing — whew, the writing — Aaron Sorkin has probably never been this good or done this much with a film script. This is ostensibly The Social Network2.0, a story about a genius/jerk who defined the times for the rest of us, except Steve Jobs has a richer character in the driver’s seat.
And in comparing the two, that leftover 3% only becomes all the more glaring. The structure of the film is unique, built over three days in history: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the launch of the NeXT computer in 1988, and the launch of the iMac in 1998. The aforementioned breathlessness of the film is derived from setting each episode immediately before these launches, as that’s probably the most stressful and nerve-wracking collection of hours in any product launcher’s life. No different in Steve Jobs. Jobs needs everything to be perfect, every address to start exactly on time, every personal grievance from his staff and family (of which there are many, and between which the words staff and family mean less and less) to be voiced and dealt with. “It seems like five minutes before every launch, people go to a bar and get drunk and decide to air their grievances,” says Jobs.